03/29/2012 06:15 pm ET Updated May 29, 2012

Oppression, Injustice, and Violence: Let's Stop Changing the Subject

Oppression, injustice, and violence are disturbing topics in and of themselves. But recently, I have been disturbed even more by the popular rhetoric employed to speak about (or around) matters of oppression.

From the shooting of Trayvon Martin, to debates raging over LGBT rights from Alaska to North Carolina, to the persistent foregrounding of economic disparity between classes in political campaigns -- all invite our sustained attention to concerns of oppression, injustice, and violence. But sustained attention quickly turns to simplification and distortion in much popular rhetoric concerning matters of oppression.

Perhaps we want to believe that oppression is an "evil" that happens to Others elsewhere. So we've developed ways of changing the subject when it seems we're getting too close to oppression, injustice, and violence where "we" live.

Perhaps we are uncomfortable with the complexities of oppression. We prefer simplicity. We've become adept at tricking others (and ourselves) into self-induced myopia--a practiced nearsightedness that prefers the comfort of the surface of social exchanges rather than the complexities of the structures, institutions, norms, habits, and symbols that rest beneath the surface.

Whatever the reason, our popular rhetoric about issues of oppression, injustice, and violence exhibits a range of tactics, tools, and tricks we regularly employ to change the subject. While these rhetorical tactics may preserve the comfort of some, they also serve to justify and perpetuate oppression, injustice, and violence through systematic avoidance and distortion of these realities in our public discourse.

Many of these tactics, tools, and tricks of popular rhetoric are easily observable in our talk about the most current events that point toward realities of oppression, injustice, and violence.

Problematic Tricks in Our Talk About Oppression

Preservation of the status quo. We have become adept at getting around realities of oppression and injustice by simply appealing to the "way things are" in comparison to the ills of the "way things used to be." Thus, the typical movement is not toward the introduction or re-institution of overt prejudicial structures (e.g., racial segregation, criminalization of "homosexuality," etc.) but toward shoring up the current status quo. Those wishing to return to a bygone era of blatant prejudice ("the way things used to be") are easily dismissed as "racists," "sexists," etc. We give less thought to how "the way things are" carries with it all manner of legal, political, and institutionalized inequalities, popular prejudicial understandings of difference, and day-to-day violence against those who deviate from the dominant "norm."

Perhaps one of the current notable exceptions, in which strong political movements are pushing beyond shoring up the status quo to the institution of stricter prejudicial structures, is seen in ongoing debate over immigration laws.

Blaming the victim. The status quo is best preserved by shifting the blame for injustice and violence away from perpetrators who may be influenced by larger social realities (e.g., racism, classism, etc.) to those most intimately affected--the victims. It is an insidious slight of hand that lives large in recent media coverage of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin: You only thought racial bias had something to do with a young, unarmed Black man being shot to death in a gated community, but it was really his choice to wear a hoodie or the fact that he'd been suspended from school that are the key factors in his unfortunate death. This is a very effective strategy of distraction from the interplay of social narratives about (racial) difference and interpersonal acts of violence.

Victim-blame that works to cover over structures of racism in racially biased violence serves also to protect patriarchy from critique when women are blamed for their own rape and sexual assault. It serves to insulate heterosexism from scrutiny when LGBT victims are blamed for their own hate crime murders with a "gay-panic defense" or when authorities chalk the murder of an LGBT person up to "risky behavior" and fail to conduct a thorough investigation. Victim-blame is also at work when we attempt to downplay structural class inequalities by insisting that if the poor would just grab those bootstraps and begin pulling we wouldn't have a problem (i.e., the Meritocracy Myth).

Personalizing the political. When it becomes clear that there are actual victims who may, in fact, be innocent, larger issues of structural injustice can still be ignored if one can shift the focus to concerns of personal prejudice. One timely example of the personalization of the political involves the upcoming vote on Proposition 5 in Anchorage, Alaska, that would amend the current Municipal Code "providing legal protections against discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, marital status, age, physical disability, and mental disability to be amended to include protections on the basis of sexual orientation or transgender identity." But what's the need for such a change in policy when, according to one anti-Prop. 5 group, Anchorage is already a "very inclusive, friendly and respectful place to live and work"?

Appeal to personally held attitudes is often quite effective in preventing a thorough examination of systemic, institutional structures that privilege some and disadvantage others. So as long as the citizens of a city hold friendly and inclusive attitudes toward their LGBT neighbors, we don't need to worry so much about their being denied housing or fired from a job based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That sort of thing wouldn't happen here, anyway.

Homogenization of difference. After all, if we just recognized that we're all human it would help us get beyond the pesky divisions based on our differences. This is perhaps the most well meaning rhetorical movement made in popular conversation, but it nevertheless serves to distort our views regarding the politics of difference. This attempt to cover over difference with the rhetoric of "sameness" can be witnessed in appeals to a "color blind" society.

If we can focus the conversation on the problem of human beings killing human beings, we no longer have to concern ourselves with how a person's race, or gender, or sexual orientation made that person a target for violence in the first place. And we don't have to be exposed to the troubling reality that much of this violence has an instrumental purpose--disciplining those who live outside of a gendered, or sexual, or racial, or religious norm and sending the message to others that they are liable to become victims too. This instrumental violence sends a clear message that keeps certain people out of certain neighborhoods and keeps closets full of LGBT persons who are taught through violence not to "flaunt it" in public.

The privileged masquerade as the persecuted. But "we're all just the same" doesn't work when some groups keep insisting that our differences do matter, both to our sense of "identity," as well to our ability to see how our embodied differences become sites of significance in understanding how oppression is structured, injustice institutionalized, and violence practiced. But if we've gotten this far in conversation then it has become clear that we have to face the reality that some are actually privileged and advantaged by laws, social norms, and the practices of institutions while others are targeted and disadvantaged. So this move attempts to turn the tables on the matter of who is really being targeted.

A prime current example is the religious (read: conservative Christian) rhetoric wavering between extreme triumphalism and persecution consciousness over a supposed "war on religion." A good example of this is Pastor Dennis Terry's recent introduction of Rick Santorum at an event in Louisiana. The message: Christians in America are being marginalized by the gays who want rights, the Muslims who don't worship Jesus, the "secularists" who don't want (Christian) prayer in public schools, etc. (persecution consciousness). So if you fall into any of these categories, you can "get out" of (Christian) America (triumphalism).

The erosion of unearned privilege may very well feel like a diminishment of one's "rights." It is a difficult lesson to learn that one group doesn't have the "right" to dominance over the lived realities of all others.

Pitting targeted groups against one another. But if all else fails, pick a couple of targeted groups and "let's you and them fight." There is no end in sight for the usefulness of this historic tactic. One timely example is the new strategy of the National Organization for Marriage (recently exposed to the public) to wedge Black and Latino voters against LGBT persons over issues of marriage equality.

In the end, the payoff of this strategy is not only a distraction from the realities of oppression, injustice, and violence that affect the lives of the targeted groups involved. But it just might demonstrate that all this talk about "oppression" and "rights" just ends up in a big ol' mess that could have been avoided if we had just agreed to change the subject.

Of course, effectiveness depends upon targeted groups being unable to see through the strategy, and if it's one thing the experience of oppression teaches any group it's to look beyond the surface of things to ask who is really benefiting from the status quo.

While these are observations about a popular discourse on oppression and injustice, those wishing for a more thorough exploration of the intersecting nature of oppression should see Audre Lorde's essay, "Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference," in Sister Outsider and Iris Marion Young's "Five Faces of Oppression" in Justice and the Politics of Difference.

Some Necessary Tasks toward Anti-Oppressive Action

When we each look at our lives with an intersectional lens--seeing race, class, gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality, dis/ability, religion, etc. as a part of our composite "identity"--it becomes difficult to view ourselves and others as purely privileged or purely targeted by oppression. We must examine our lives for our own complicity in varied forms of oppression, injustice, and violence--examining our explicitly held attitudes and beliefs, as well as, taken-for-granted assumptions and unquestioned routine actions that perpetuate bias based upon class, gender, race, sexual orientation, age, etc.

Beyond examining our own lives, individuals and groups working toward anti-oppressive ends must become increasingly more comfortable and far more skillful at addressing concerns of oppression, injustice, and violence in ways that expose the common mechanisms that run throughout the experiences of targeted groups. Breaking out of the silos of our work toward various forms of justice will help to expose the reality that very few benefit from an oppressive status quo.

Lest anyone reduce my message to the idea that "all experiences of oppression are the same," I will be clear: they are most certainly not. We must guard against this simplification by acknowledging the multiplicity of our own "identities" such that the oppression, injustice, and violence that each experiences based upon one particular embodied difference (e.g., race) is mitigated and/or exacerbated by myriad other identity markers (e.g., class, gender, sexuality, dis/ability, age, etc.).

The personal experience and material effects of oppression for a straight Black female will be different from a disabled poor White male, which will be different from a transgender Latina, which will be different from a wealthy bisexual man, and so on. We must not be reductive in our understandings of the varied experience and effects of oppression--all are disadvantaged by discrimination, some face persistent insult, others are targeted for assault, and more than we care to admit are killed.

Despite these varied experiences, the mechanisms of oppression have common identifiable characteristics. Up close, the tightly woven fabric of oppression may exhibit unique features from swath to swath, but a step back will reveal the thematic semblance interwoven throughout.

Finally, it would behoove us all to be attentive to the rhetorical simplifications and distortions that we encounter in day-to-day conversation on matters of oppression, injustice, and violence. When we become so attentive, we may be surprised by the statements that come from our own lips. We must begin holding ourselves and those whom we regularly engage accountable for conversational distractions from the realities of oppression, injustice, and violence, whether these occur in the office break room, in our churches, around the dining room table, or on Facebook.

To be sure, not everyone who employs these conversational distractions intends to perpetuate oppression, injustice, and violence. And, to be sure, some do.